Cheap Grace: Pimp my gospel!

Cheap Grace: Pimp my gospel!

The editors of Leadership journal have posted another incisive commentary on the state of the Church today in their Out of Ur weblog. It’s about how we (in the Western church) have turned the gospel into a pimping enterprise. There’s nothing really new here, it’s the same complaint Bonhoeffer had about “cheap grace.” But the language is, well, provocative. From church planter Jonathan Yarboro:

I was standing before 200 people at church when I said it: “Salvation is not a walk down the aisle, a prayer, and wham bam, thank you ma’am, you’re done.” Jaws dropped; some faces turned white; some turned red. I was clueless, so I just kept teaching. It turns out that the phrase, “wham bam, thank you ma’am,” meant something different to me than it did to the rest of the world. Afterward some of my listeners enlightened me. I was embarrassed. I didn’t intend to equate one’s conversion experience to some sort of sexual encounter in the red light district.

Over the last few years, I have pondered the statement, and despite the fact that I originally meant nothing so profound, I believe the statement to be true—we are tempted to turn conversion into something of an act of prostitution. We are the consumers, and we might as well say it—we’ve turned Jesus’ invitation into a seductive, greasy, trick-turning lifestyle. Doesn’t that make your blood boil?

(From: Leadership Blog: Out of Ur: “Pimping Jesus: consumerism and the red-light gospel”.)

I am reminded of the article I recently posted about Carlton D. Pearson (“The Charismatic Bishop of Heresy”), a prime example of the logical out-working of this kind of productized theology. Or consider Joel Osteen’s fangless self-help theology. Or consider Dr. Schuller’s Crystalline Cathedral Christianity.

When Jesus is reduced to a feel-good agent of positive self-improvement, when he is no longer the Son of God who died for our sins, when his sacrifice and resurrection are cheapened by gospels that serve him up as just another means of getting to Heaven, we are pimping out Jesus. I couldn’t agree more.

And, I believe, this lies at the heart of flagging church growth in denominations everywhere but in the Global South. In America there is often little cost to following Christ. We don’t really put to death the sins that beset us. We accommodate the spiritual dissonance of our pet sins right alongside out pet theologies. And we do not embrace the spiritual transformation and mental renewal promised by Romans 12:1-2. We are not being transformed by the renewing of our minds.

But what is the solution? Where do we lay the blame? How do we shift the paradigm? Do we hold more Sunday School classes? Insist on Sunday night services? Require our pastors and preachers to graduate only from conservative Evangelical seminaries? Do we fire them all and start over?

I am confident that many (most?) of you who read this blog and read the Out of Ur piece will agree with the thrust of the criticism leveled. But, if the truth of the statements are so easily recognized, where is the heart of this problem?

Too often we are like the cargo-cults, who, in an effort to return to the days of plentiful goods literally falling from the sky during World War II, vainly erect bamboo air-towers and dirt airstrips in hopes that someday the cargo bearing planes of old will return and their culture will enjoy material abundance once more. Are we going through the motions, waving our hands, building our sanctuaries, resting on the promises of our grandfathers and grandmothers, without ever having experienced true spiritual blessing ourselves?

Or am I just romanticizing the past? After all, if it was Bonhoeffer’s complaint in his day, and if it was Jesus’ complaint to the church of Laodicea, then this is nothing new to the Church.

But how do we put away this business of pimping and get about the work of transformation? 

[tags]cargo-cult, cheap-grace, heaven, hell, witnessing, Joel-Osteen, Bonhoeffer, grace, evangelism, BlogRodent, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, salvation, missions, laodicea, gospel, pimp, global-south, discipleship, spiritual-transformation, church-growth[/tags]

11 thoughts on “Cheap Grace: Pimp my gospel!

  1. Jim

    About 20 years into this more than 3 decade walk with Christ, Rich, I scotch-taped a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon into one of my Bibles on a blank spot next to I Timothy. It seemed as good a place as any.

    One cell, it portrayed a fellow standing on the shore of some huge lake holding the reins of his gallant steed that was up to its belly in the lake’s contents. The caption simply read: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him walk on it”.

    Beneath the picture I wrote: “I don’t want to be a leader. I’ve seen too many caught up in their own ego. Lord, make me a man of God”. The cartoon had offended me at first. I thought it a slur at what I held dear. There was no denying its truth, however. The minute we think ourselves of working transformation in the other fellow, we’re guilting of “pimping” the Gospel. We can’t even do that in ourselves. Always…it is Christ!

    The best we can do is die that He might ressurect within us and, in the resurrection, overflow in another’s life…

  2. Oengus Moonbones

    Isn’t anything going right anywhere in America?

    If I were a recently landed Martian and decided to begin by investigating the xtian blogosphere, the overwhelming impression I would get is that the answer must be a big resoundingno! Absolutely everybody is screwed up, and absolutely everybody’s head is on backwards.

    But on the other hand, everything is all hunky-dory in 3rd World Countries. Miracles are happening daily there.

    But absolutely nothing is going right here, anyhow, anywhere. It’s all one big “Laodicea” about ready to be tossed into Gehenna.

    I don’t know, but something tells me that things are getting unbalanced somewhere in how we understand what’s going on. Maybe the blogosphere is one big echo chamber.

  3. Rich Post author

    Sure, Oengus, some things are going right.

    We’ve got an teenage internet “prostitute” turning to faith (Justin Berry), a high-school kid with amazing altruistic values checking out the real story in Baghdad (Farris Hassan), the A/G’s Convoy of Hope and Children’s Ministry Agency throwing a huge Christmas Party in the sea-drenched parishes of Louisiana, the A/G headquarters’ “Vision for Transformation” project getting underway in Springfield to good effect, tongue-tied youth pastors pitching tents and displaying great humility and humor (Blake Bergstrom), in Wood River, Illinois, a woman demonstrates the grace of Christ in forgiving the drunk driver who killed her sons (Holly Scroggins), in Denver, a poet drops a taboo word in a publicly read poem–but the poem is passionate and moving and lives are changed (Mary Kate Makkai), and an ancient church is being dug up from under a prison yard, and it will help clarify our understanding of early church culture (Megiddo Prison Church).

    I see your point. It’s easy to become overly critical and negative, and that’s something I have to be on guard against in my life both online and offline (is there any such division, anyhow?).

    But if your same Martians simply looked at the New Testament–especially the letters of Paul, they might come to the very same conclusions. After all, we only have the Laodicean epithet to use as a label because it came to us from the Revelation of John.

    By the way, I’m not claiming that everything is peachy in the Southern church. I don’t have to be there to know there’s plenty of bad theology, bad men, bad women, misappropriated funds, sin, and materialism going on. Any place there are people there will be problems. But if there’s any evidence that there is more effective evangelism and discipleship going on in the Global South then it does is well to observe it and learn from it. Which, apparently, the Episcopalian church isn’t doing, and that’s why some non-liberal Episcopalian churches are moving under the protection of Southern primates (see posts on “Anglican Mission in America,” “Nigerian Anglican Church,” and “Anglican Angst“). And I see that as yet another Good Thing.



  4. Oengus Moonbones

    Hello, Rich.

    I don’t mean to complain overmuch. I just suspect sometimes that our perspectives, about the overall condition of things, are somewhat skewed and we’re not seeing the complete picture. I’d like to suggest at least one possible reason why this is so: much of what we think about the overall church derives from what gets printed by the “xtian book publishing” industry and magazines, sections of which are owned by solidly secular corporations whose number one goal is enhancing profits and measuring up to Wall Street expectations. There is a definite tendency from such an arrangement to publish whatever will sell, and what sells is the senstional or controversial (witness how well professional “heresy hunters” always seem to sell their books).

    For example, when I see bloggers go on and on about various “problems in the church”, I often wonder “Good grief. Just one church (theirs) can’t be having that many problems? Don’t tell me, are they actually hopping around different churches, going church to church, for the purpose of observing these things? Or are they mostly reading about them in books or from other blogs?”

    Anyhow, comment boxes are not the best place to carry on a lengthy dissertation, but I think you see my gest here.

  5. Rich Post author

    Oengus, thanks for the comments.

    As you note, we could too easily fall into a trap of criticizing the critics and being bit by the same poisonous snake.

    I don’t know about other bloggers in general or about the author of the blog post I cited in particular, but for myself, in my 24 years with the A/G I have lived in four cities and regularly worshipped at six different A/G churches. I have probably become familiar with another two dozen or more on top of that due to travel, friends and family in other churches, visiting churches while looking for a “church home” in a new city, or visiting for special events. Additionally, having attended an A/G bible college and worked in the A/G headquarters I was exposed to a stream of visiting pastors, preachers, evangelists, and missionaries pounding pulpits in our daily or weekly chapel services. I’ve been to three General Council meetings, and several “campground” meetings held at district retreat centers. I try to keep in touch with what’s happening in the A/G. In my work at Christianity Today I’ve come into contact with various church leaders from different denominations and traditions, both as colleagues and as correspondents and acquaintances.

    I don’t say this to brag (because my experiences are nothing special–you probably have similar and more varied experiences than I do, in fact), but simply to say that even though I’m not terribly well-travelled and even though I am a committed, single-church attender, it’s not hard to pick up on trends and issues when you have your ear to the ground and interact with a handful of church leaders over time.

    I don’t know about other bloggers, but I know that it is possible to have an opinion about trends. And it’s more likely that someone will leap up and yell “Fire!” when they smell smoke than they would leap and yell “Peace!” in its absence. It’s the nature of “guardians” to point out the dangers they perceive–whether they are self-appointed guardians or not, and whether the danger is real or not.

    In peaceful regard, and thanks for commenting…


  6. Jim

    Rich…At this point, I’m not sure where to place this comment. My “credentials” are merely 30 years attached to an old-time, independant, holiness church that somewhere along the way ran after television charismatics until I finally left and am prsently attending a local A/G assembly. There were about 5 years in there when I also gave myself to an new inner-city outreach in downtown Cincinnati. No ordination, but have worked in children’s ministry, nursing home, Youth Detention Center, etc. My site often speaks of the Church, at large, in terms of where I see its present state. I appreciate, therefore, your recent comment concerning it “possible to have an opinion about trends…more likely that someone will leap up and yell “Fire!” when they smell smoke than they would leap and yell “Peace!” in its absence…the nature of “guardians” to point out the dangers they perceive–whether they are self-appointed guardians or not, and whether the danger is real or not”……

    I offer something I’ve written in one of my Bible’s taken from another blogger along the way: “Whatever our disappointments witht he Church, whatever its intransigence, or illogic, whatever ways we have been hurt by it, even exploited, whatever its humanity…we cannot ignore the presence which underlies its existence and gives us reason, always to hope. The failures of the Church do not negate the reality of God, But do we cut it loose? Should we all become religious free-lancers? This is not an option. For the nature of God’s relationship to us is also revealed in our communion with each other. This communion must be sacralized as a sign, not so much of God’s intention, but of our own. By declaring our intention, we can begin to receive the fruit of His”….

    Hope…It is, indeed, one of the elements Scripture declares involved in our salvation (Romans 8:24). I believe it. Peace, my friend…..

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  8. David Copeland

    After almost 27 years of preaching in churches of various sizes and denominations, the American church is basically vary away from what God inteded it to be in the beginning.

    But I also agree with Jim and Rich: as long as you have people you potentially have problems. The great hope for us, is that Jesus took 12 men who were not qualified by the religious standards of their day and turned the world right side up! And the hope we have today is that God will hear our cry and our prayers and somehow use some of us to turn our world right side up!

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  11. Bea K.

    Re: Pimp my gospel,
    Guess I’m in the minority here, because I believe there’s good and bad in ALL churches, perhaps that’s the main reason for the Bible calling for ‘constant’ prayer? Don’t know anything about the ‘southern’ churches because I haven’t been south in years, but I also don’t believe they have the ‘upper’ hand either.
    I praise the Lord for my Arch Bishop and our Pastor (here in the East in New York City) each and every day, as well as a few other pastors (tv and not televised too) who “consistently” preach the unadulterated truth via God’s Word, each and every Sunday (even though we’ve lost a lot of members, some to ‘incidents’ within the church, others who’ve moved to other cities, some who’ve ‘gone to sleep’, and those who’ve decided the ‘deeper’ you get into the Word the less they want to know about it.).
    It takes a lot to ‘keep on preaching’ the truth, when others want to leave and go to other churches that will ‘tell them only what they want to hear and nothing else’, or to join ‘mega churches’ (we’ve been that route, and after a while that will start to fade as well, usually once people come out of their stupors.) where the Word can be watered down and give you an ‘ear tickling’.
    Lastly, this may sound really stupid or even a bit cheesy, but to those ministries that ‘refuse to sell out’ and go the way of the ‘competitors’, I pray to God/Jesus that you will stick to the ‘Narrow Way’ (even if you go down to 2 people, because God adds to the church as He sees fit) because the ‘Broad Path’ is fooling way too many people who’ll be more than sorry when they get to the ‘end of their destinations’. God have mercy on and help us all.

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